In the Western media, the Rohingya crisis seems to be a clear-cut moral issue: the military is conducting ethnic genocide of the Muslims of Rakhine State. The basic narrative regarding the conflict is agreed upon by both sides: Bangladesh Muslims emigrated to Myanmar, settled in Rakhine State, requested citizenship, and began to call themselves Rohingya in an attempt to assert their own ethnicity and achieve political recognition.
This, however, is where the narrative changes. According to some sources, such as the BBC, terrorist organizations such as a group called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) emerged from these Rakhine Muslims, and frustrated by their lack of representation began to attack the military in an attempt to gain political power. The military, in part due to a general fear of Islam in Southeast Asia, responded with extremely harsh attacks on the Muslim communities. This is a different narrative than what is covered in the West, which is best exemplified by a CNN article explaining who the Rohingya are: “They have been raped, tortured and killed. They have been crowded on boats and ping-ponged between nations that don't want them. They have been forced into labor and have no rights to their land. Rohingya Muslims are among the most persecuted people in the world, and once again, they find themselves running for their lives.” The reports of the conflict from the Myanmar government have been proven to be enormously dishonest, as while the military and government denies their killing and raping of civilians, evidence collected by the UN and other agencies seem to prove otherwise. The government has tried to account for these differences, saying that the Rakhine Muslims were burning down their own houses and villages. As one Bagan local, named Christopher described, “It’s frighteningly similar to George Orwell’s, Animal Farm. Some people may think that something’s true, but nobody really knows if something is true or not.”
However, speaking to people in the country exposes a much more skeptical perspective. Outside of Rakhine State, educated locals admit that there are attacks going on in the western part of the country, although they maintain these attacks are not as extreme as is often being reported. Christopher explained, “I don’t want to say I can’t believe it, but I can only believe one part. People say that their child was killed, but you would not throw a three-year-old child into a fire for no reason; it’s hard to believe. If you write about it, you need to have something behind it. I don’t want to say I don’t believe it, but people have their doubts.”
Buddhists in Rakhine State argue a more extreme narrative, claiming that the Rohingya were originally Bengali Muslims brought to the area by the British in order to fight against the Rakhine and to work the rice fields. Now, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have come over the Bangladesh border illegally and are now referring to themselves as Rohingya, while raping and attacking villages in the area. The issue as explained by these locals is not that the groups are simply Muslim, but that they are terrorists demanding citizenship and political rights that the government will not agree to. Some even argue that the military is in fact defending the Rakhine Buddhists, and that though the Rohingya were offered an opportunity to become citizens, they declined, demanding further independence.
The Washington Post recently published an article addressing this local anti-Rohingya mindset, blaming new technology for spreading “fake news” fueling ethnic hatred against the Rakhine Muslims. As the article explains, “an endless stream of provocative photos and cartoons claim that there is no “ethnic cleansing” against Burma’s Muslim Rohingya minority. Instead, according to the posts, international news and human rights organizations are falsely accusing the military of carrying out atrocities against the Rohingya to help terrorists infiltrate the country, kill Buddhists and carve out a separatist Islamic province… A recent study found that 38 percent of Facebook users in Burma got most, if not all, of their news on the site. And news feeds in Burma are rife with anti-Rohingya posts, shared not only by ordinary people but also by senior military officers and the spokesman for Burma’s de facto leader, Aung Sang Suu Kyi.”
There is truth to both sides of the conflict, and it is extremely important to consider all available information (which is quite limited). Western media definitely has a bias to it, as seen with the constant usage of the term Rohingya, which carries much more significance and meaning to it than is recognized in most sources. As explained by a Myanmar local, “we have eight major ethnic groups and 135 minor ethnic groups in the country… Rohingya Muslims believe that by naming themselves they can create their own ethnic group and their own state as a Muslim territory. That’s not how it works.”
Further, it is necessary to note the differences in why the conflict arose in the first place, as while it definitely seems like a “textbook example of ethnic genocide” in an attempt to rid the area of Muslims, it was also a reaction to small militant groups. Of course, it was an extremely disproportional and extreme reaction on the part of the military, carried out on a much larger scale than the original small group which conducted the original attack(s).
The treatment of the Rohingya is unacceptable, no matter what the context.
I did not write this to excuse the military’s behavior or the mass killings that are being systematically conducted against the Muslim communities in Western Myanmar. However, it is necessary to understand the mindset of the people on the ground, and to analyze ways in which information about the issue is being transmitted; propagating only one version of the narrative and offer a multiperspectival approach to a highly complex and volatile situation.
It is also crucial to consider Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s role in the Rohingya conflict. She has been consistently attacked in Western media for not defending the persecuted Muslim population, however there is uncertainty as to what this would actually achieve. The military has an incredibly strong rule over the country, and her speaking out against their actions may lead to her being removed from power, further hurting the democracy of the nation instead of fixing the humanitarian crisis in any manner. Most locals continue to support her as one of the sole protectors against the military rules, “I always supported Aung Sun Suu Kyi and I still believe in her, and I think she is going to do her best on the crisis. She doesn’t care about the religion, she cares about the country, and she’s going to make the country good. I never liked the military government, and if they take power again for some reason I will try to get out of the country as I don’t want to risk my child if they take power again.” Alleging that while she could be doing more to defend the Rohingya, it is perhaps politically shrewd for her to negotiate with the military behind closed doors. We do not know if she is fact attempting to do so, but it is potentially unfair to write her off already as disrupting the democracy that she previously worked so hard to achieve.
It is also interesting to note the similarities between this conflict and that of Israel-Palestine, with much of the same language being used in regards to an ethnic minority being displaced and systematically killed under the guise of being labeled as terrorists. However, when the West has less reliance on the country being called into question or political and economic care in the matter, it seems we are much quicker to call out genocide and mass murder.